Motorbikes and Menu Roulette in Saigon

I survived Saigon on the back of a motorbike. There ought to be a medal for something like that.

You know how you’re driving and sometimes wish you could just turn around in the middle of the road, reverse until you get to that exit you just missed or haul ass down a one way street going the wrong way? Well, in Saigon, you can. Just go over there from over here, crowd into the same lane as the other five motorbikes and the car and the seven bicycles and the bus, ignore the stop lights and go as fast as traffic will allow. Sidewalk? No problem. One way street? We laugh at you. Painted lines on the street? A waste of money and a waste of paint. Red light? Green light? Both mean Go. It’s hair raising.

Let’s clarify that I did not drive. I would not be writing this story had I tried to drive. I ventured a trial run down the alley but was not up to Saigon standards so I forfeited and my friend Jack drove. And the minute we got on the bike it started to downpour. Of course. And we only had one rain poncho. Naturally. So he wore it and I hid under the back. Ever tried to navigate with a sopping wet copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam while hiding under a poncho on the back of a motorbike  in a tropical rainstorm as street signs you can’t read whip by and you’re driven through traffic circles of death? No? Well, it’s tricky.

View from the bike

View from the bike

I’m not even sure Jack heard many of my navigational suggestions as he just kept muttering “Merge seamlessly… Merge seamlessly…” and dashing around little old ladies on bicycles. After an hour of this harrowing adventure, we finally made it out of the city and drove past a market and I yelled up that it might be nice to stop and get something to eat and maybe take a break from the Death Race 2010. So, he stopped a block away, turned around and drove against traffic until we got back to the market. He’s hardcore.

We parked at the market, staggered shakily off the bike and walked down the street to where we saw a restaurant. But when we walked in we realized it was a gentleman’s club. Not only were there no Westerners, but there were no women there who weren’t working. The owner stopped us at the door and Jack gestured at me like, “Is this ok??” The owner looked at us, took a minute and then nodded. So, we sat down and the girls ran up to attend us while a hush fell over the whole place and everyone watched every move we made. Then we got menus in Vietnamese. With no pictures. And no one sitting next close enough to us to point and say something like “Bring us some of that!”

But here’s where your choice of traveling companion is paramount and mine was stellar because Jack just rubbed his hands, grinned and said “I love menu roulette!” He started flipping through pages pointing at various things saying “Is this good??” in English, while the waitress looked at him blankly. Then he covered his eyes with one hand, flipped the pages and pointed at something and parted his fingers to peek at her.

Our waitress started laughing when she got the game and soon all the girls were standing around our table watching the show. As he pointed to more things, some of them shook their heads and made faces like “Yuck!” So Jack kept pointing until they all nodded. The girls wrote our “order” down and took it away and we decided that the only potential downside was if we liked the food and could never order it again because we had no idea what it was. Which is exactly what happened.

Street food

Street food

Some kind of tofu with pork in a spicily sweet barbeque type sauce arrived in a big steaming pot. Delicious. When we finished it the waitress brought over a dish of grilled hot dogs cut into pieces, plunked it on the table, said “Free!” and left. I’m pretty sure that meant “We never get Westerners in here but we hear this is what they eat so we want to treat you to something we’re sure you’ll like.” Isn’t that lovely? An hour later when we left all the girls waved goodbye and shouted things in Vietnamese that probably meant “Goodbye! Thanks for coming in! Learn some Vietnamese for the next time you come back!”

Then we got incredibly lost trying to get back into District 1.

Five hours later we were finally having a drink at the bar telling stories about our brushes with death and inspecting our wounds. My knee got bashed up pretty good from a small misjudgment about how close we were to a neighboring motorbike; and I have a bruise on my arm, another on my foot and a scrape on my leg, all of which kind of stopped a bike from running us over. Jack got off pretty easy with just an elbow that had a very close encounter with a headlight; but he did have to drive, so I think the psychological scarring will show up later. As we told stories to the Vietnamese guys we rented the bikes from they laughed and showed us the scrapes and bruises and scabs all over their arms and legs from their most recent drives out in the city. Good to know it’s not just the tourists who shed blood all over the streets.

So here’s the thing: In one day I saw most of Saigon from the back of a motorbike huddled under a poncho. If you think you can handle NASCAR and you have the reflexes of a lightning bolt, I would definitely recommend it. Just rent a bike, start driving and see where you end up. And remember: Merge Seamlessly.

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